Expert Looks At How To Increase Women MPs In Cook Islands

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Only 9 women have been elected in 50 years

By Jaewynn McKay

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, July 30, 2015) – In 50 years, the Cook Islands voting public has elected just nine women to Parliament.

Just two non-elected women have been appointed as Speakers. So, all up, women, who make up just over half of Cook Islands’ population, have occupied much fewer than 50 per cent of the available elected positions.

However, this could all be about to change if Dyfan (pronounced Doveun) Jones, a parliamentary development specialist with the United Nations Development Programme and some locals, including the Minister for Parliament, Hon Nandi Glassie and Speaker Niki Rattle, have their way.

Jones is on Rarotonga meeting with people who have an interest in the make-up and the running of Parliament, including the Speaker, Members of Parliament and parliamentary staff.

Increasing women’s political participation is one aspect of the work he has done around the region and hopes to do in the Cook Islands, along with increasing parliament’s capacity to engage and respond to key development issues. This type of work that has kept him occupied for over a decade in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific.

The Pacific region has the lowest number of women parliamentarians. Excluding New Zealand and Australia, just five per cent of the elected parliamentarians are women. Compared to the regional percentage, the Cook Islands is well ahead of the average, as is Fiji, where 16 per cent of the members of parliament are women.

Jones and his family live in Fiji, and it’s his work there following last September’s election he has found the most challenging. After going eight years without democracy and a parliament (not even a building), much had to be re-established in the days, weeks and months following the election – an election that delivered 50 members of parliament, including eight women. Ninety per cent of those elected are first-time MPs.

Not only did a new parliament building need to be sourced, a new secretariat had to be recruited, Standing Orders had to be modernised and electronic voting has been introduced. Dyfan says Fiji is making the most of this fresh start. A 12-month ‘sitting calendar’ is in place so the public and parliamentarians alike know when the House will be sitting; six standing committees have been established and every meeting is a public meeting unless a special situation arises.

Much of the work that has taken place in Fiji following the return of democracy has been funded by New Zealand, Australia, the European Union and Japan and has helped in setting a sound platform for the operation of the new Parliament.

Because the region uses the Westminster system, relatively generic training can be applied to the region as a whole. Dyfan enjoys working with new MPs and says the induction into their new jobs at an early stage is important.

This training includes an introduction to the working and machinations of parliament, the importance of the parliamentary committees and the work that goes on at committee level, key development issues, working out a sustainable approach to issues rather than treating everything on a one-off basis.

Not surprisingly the region shares the same challenges, such as setting a regular sitting programme and parliament keeping a regular check on government, as well as language issues. Dyfan says politics can be divisive, but the role of parliaments is to bring people together and to have politicians effectively play the representative, rather than the ‘politics’.

It’s a tricky divide and one our politicians here have yet to master. However, from what Dyfan has heard so far, he believes there is an appetite to see our parliament work more effectively. This view is shared by Speaker Niki Rattle and a former Member of the Public Accounts Committee, Mona Ioane MP.

The Speaker believes education and training that helps to make for better Parliamentarians will not be money wasted. "This work is about parliamentarians, not about politicians. There are times when parliamentarians have to stop being politicians, for the good of the nation".

Mr Ioane agrees with the Speaker and recently reminded members of parliament meeting on Family Law Bill that they needed to put their politics aside and think of the people affected by this legislation, their constituents. He told them they should together rather than be driven by what side of the house they sit on.

He says training is needed to make these clarifications clear.

"Sure they won’t apply all the time, but we politicians need to work on being better parliamentarians."

When Dyfan is not working with parliamentarians he spends time with his wife and one-year-old daughter. He has found the people he’s met so far in the Cook Islands ‘refreshing’.

"Everyone seems keen to look forward and to take small steps".

And while he’s working hard, Dyfan is eager to take advantage of the plethora of culture on show this week.

Asked if the timing of his trip was good luck or good planning, he replies,"a bit of both!"

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